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Amid Gaza War, A Beefed Up Saudi Nuke Program Is Still On The Table

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Published in Responsible Statecraft

Speaking at a campaign event on October 20, President Biden clearly linked Hamas’s brutal surprise attack on Israel to the highly publicized normalization talks with Saudi Arabia, explaining, “One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel … they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis.”

While the talks have since paused, the incentives for rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel still remain, assuming a wider war does not confound the present calculus.

Saudi Arabia reportedly stands to benefit from U.S. nuclear assistance and a potential defense pact if the deal goes through, which would represent a galactic shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Normalization was already a prized goal for Israel, but it is now highly incentivized to isolate Hamas from the Arab world by normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and building on the Abraham Accords. And President Biden may view a breakthrough as his legacy achievement in the Middle East, given that the Iran nuclear deal is hanging by a thread.

As presently envisioned, the tripartite deal relies on the United States to grease the wheels for there to be any breakthrough in normalization talks. But it is some expensive grease. The United States and Saudi Arabia have spent a decade negotiating the limits of a nuclear power program to no avail, and Saudi leaders routinely threaten to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does.

Acceding to Saudi demands on this issue would represent a stark break in U.S. nonproliferation policy, but the transfer of enrichment technology is highly unlikely. Instead, the United States’ pursuit of influence over the program might result in concessions, allowing Riyadh access to enrichment capabilities without exerting control over them, unlike the situation with Iran. The measure of policy success should be the extent of knowledge and technology retained by Riyadh in the event of U.S. withdrawal.

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